From the luxury suites at Arizona Stadium, a fan at Friday’s Arizona-NAU game could see the distant lights at Salpointe, Rincon/University and Sunnyside high schools, a Friday night that historically has been sacred to prep football.
Between them, Salpointe and Cienega drew about 8,000 on Friday. The remaining seven games in Tucson probably drew another 10,000, which surely cut into the UA’s announced crowd of 53,793.
That doesn’t mean the Wildcats would have sold out on Friday, adding 5,000 fans who chose to follow high school football. There were too many empty seats in the new north end zone complex, seats that are a bit pricey compared to $5 charged to watch the high school kids.
But it’s an indication that the game-day atmosphere for Arizona football has improved notably in Greg Byrne’s administration.
It’s no longer just football. It’s Rich Rodriguez interacting with fans on the Wildcat Walk, capped by rubbing the head of the “Button” Salmon statue. It’s the Kiss Cam on the mammoth scoreboard. It’s Zona Zoo, 9,000 strong, creating a din.
It’s copper helmets, the greener-than-green appeal of the new Field Turf and it’s the winning quarterback leading the band in “Bear Down, Arizona.” So much has changed.
The UA fought some negative variables on Friday, including some of the worst traffic ever encountered on game night, the possibility of rain, two marquee high school games, a dismal opponent and an option to watch the game on TV.
But remember this: Three years ago, 2010, without the amenities and appeal of a Byrne-created fan experience, Arizona drew 54,814 for a game against The Citadel.
A year later, it couldn’t draw 50,000 against No. 6 Stanford, quarterbacked by Andrew Luck.
College football in Tucson remains a fragile, sometimes fickle industry but it passed Friday’s test and then some.